Word Stories: Dogs

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast on the word “dog”.

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Hello and welcome to English with Stephen podcast. The podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

Today I have a word story for you. In these episodes, I try to look at where important words come from, how they have changed over time and some different ways they are used today.

The idea behind this is that by telling stories about words, we are more likely to remember them and to understand them better.

Today, I am going to talk about the word ‘dog’. ‘Dog’ is actually something of a mystery as there is no other word like it and nobody knows where it came from. Find out more, after this.

Before we start, I’d just like to remind you that there is a transcript for this episode on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com. A transcript is a written version of what I am saying right now. Many English learners find a transcript very helpful because if there is a word or phrase you don’t understand, you can check it in the transcript. You can also use the transcript to confirm spellings, check pronunciation and analyse different parts of the text.

Remember, if you’d like to get the transcript, it is totally free and available at EnglishwithStephen.com.

And now let’s get back to the dogs.

Are you a dog person or a cat person? Or perhaps you prefer some other type of animal? Or maybe you hate the whole idea of sharing your living space with any type of animal at all.

Well, I am a dog person. I like most animals, but I have always had a dog. At the moment, we have two dogs. Max is 7-year-old beagle, and Alba is 3-month-old Swiss Shepherd. In fact, Alba is the reason why I missed a few weeks of my podcasts because she is hard work. Puppies just don’t care about recording schedules.

If you are interested, I’ll post some photos of my two dogs on my site, Englishwithstephen.com.

Anyway, as I said earlier, the word ‘dog’ is something of a mystery. In old English, the word used to describe man’s best fried was ‘hund’ or the modern ‘hound’. We still use this word today to talk about a hunting dog, especially a hunting dog that can find its prey using smell. My older dog, Max, is a hound as he has a wonderful sense of smell.

The word ‘hound’ can also be used to describe a man who has a negative personality, somebody you really do not like. As a verb it can be used as a synonym for ‘chase, harass, persecute relentlessly’. If you think about the way dogs hunt other animals, this makes sense, they chase the other animal for a long time until it is too tired to run anymore.

But the origin of the word ‘dog’ is a mystery. There is no other word like it in any European language. It just kind of appears from nowhere. One day, everyone used the word ‘hund’ and then the next day it was ‘dog’.

And it isn’t just English that has this mystery. The equivalent word in Spanish and some Slavic languages seems to have just appeared out of thin air.

Wherever the word ‘dog’ came from, it has certainly picked up a lot of other meanings. Originally, these meanings were usually negative. This is because a dog was not a pet, but a working animal, usually associated with hunting and fighting.

The most obvious example of a phrase with a negative connotation is ‘It’s a dog’s life’. Originally, a dog’s life was a cold, wet and terrible one. Recently, though, as dogs have been welcomed into the home as pets, their lives have improved somewhat. People now often use the phrase ‘it’s a dog’s life’ ironically when they see some dog fast asleep on the sofa. Maybe in the future the phrase will change its meaning completely to mean an easy life. Who knows?

If something has ‘gone to the dogs’, it has become much less successful than it was before. You often hear old people saying something like “Oh, this city was fantastic when I was a kid. I don’t know what happened, though, it has gone to the dogs in recent years.”

When we talk about “dog days”, we mean the hottest days of the summer. These are the days when it is just too hot to move and the only thing you can do is lie down in the middle of the road and wait for the heat to pass. Just like my dog does.

This phrase, “dog days”, gives us the name of one of my favourite films ever. “Dog Day Afternoon” stars Al Pacino and tells the story of a man who tries to rob a bank on one of the hottest days of the year. Needless to say, Al Pacino’s character is not wholly successful.

If someone says “it is a dog eat dog world”, they are suggesting it is a highly competitive world where only the strongest and most ruthless can survive. I guess this comes from the fact that many dogs were originally bred in order to fight each other.

Did you notice that I used the verb “bred” in the last sentence? “Bred” is the past of the word “breed”. When you breed an animal, you keep it so that you can produce young animals in a controlled way. We can also use “breed” to describe the type of dog you have. For example, in our house we have a beagle and a Swiss Shepherd.

As we are talking about verbs, the word “dog” can also be a verb. Let me give you an example. The newspaper reporters dogged the politician for weeks, asking him questions about the missing money. In this example, “to dog” means to follow someone closely and make life difficult for them. If you imagine a pack of dogs hunting an animal, it is a similar experience.

And from this verb we get the adjective “dogged”. A “dogged person” is someone who never gives up, who keeps following their path, even when some other people might stop.

And while the dog is hunting, or following, the animal, what noise does a dog make? Well, if you listen to Max, my beagle dog, he howls. A howl is a long sound, similar to the one a wolf might make at night.

Most of the time, we use the word “bark” for the noise a dog makes. For example, my dogs bark whenever they see the neighbour’s cat outside. We have a couple of good expressions that use the word “bark”.

The first is “his bark is worse than his bite”. My dog, Max, barks like crazy when he sees a new person outside. But as soon as he meets the person he is so friendly the only danger you are in is if he licks you too much. In this case, we could definitely say his bark is worse than his bite. And we can use it as a metaphor to talk about people in general to mean that while somebody might say something that is scary or frightening, the person’s actions are not as bad.

The second phrase that uses the word “bark” is “barking up the wrong tree”. Again, I am going to use my dog Max as an example. One day, we were going for a walk when we saw a squirrel on the path. Max tried to run after the squirrel, but the squirrel was too fast and quickly ran up a tree. Once he was up the tree, he jumped to another tree and just sat there watching us.

Max hadn’t seen the squirrel jump onto a different tree, and so spent the next 10 minutes barking up the original tree that the squirrel had run up. He was, literally, barking up the wrong tree. In real life, we can use this expression to say that somebody has made the wrong choice and is doing something that is pointless and will not get the desired result. Just like my dog Max barking up the wrong tree trying to catch the squirrel.

So, we have the words “howl” and “bark” for the noises a dog can make. But what if we want to describe the actual sound that a dog makes? In English, a dog says “woof”. To me, this is perfectly natural and really is similar to the noise most dogs make. However, in Portuguese, dogs say “au”.

What about in your language? What noise does a dog make? You can tell me all about it on my site EnglishwithStephen.com. You could also tell me about any expressions you have that use dogs in your language. I am always interested in learning how dogs are represented around the world. Remember, you can tell me on my site or on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Oh, and don’t forget you can also find the transcript on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com, as well.

It’s about time I went and took my dogs for a walk now. Thanks for listening, and I hope to speak to you again next week.

Speak soon!

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